Climate change and ecosystem services: Billions of dollars at stake

Thermometer. Photo by rcbodden, Flickr.

When the summer heat starts inching up towards the triple digit mark, many people notice an increase in their power bill from running the air conditioner more. But what will the bill look like when the planet’s temperature goes up? Unfortunately, it is going to be in the billions of dollars.

The leading authority on climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reports that a 2° to 4.5°C rise in the upcoming decades due to climate change is likely. What does this mean to our public lands? Based on a recent study conducted by The Wilderness Society it means a significant decrease in the quality of ecosystem services that public lands provide – to the tune of up to $36 billion.

In the study, Wilderness Society researchers Spencer Phillips and Jennifer Boggs join partner colleagues in studying impacts to ecosystem services. Their results show an the overall trend of value decreasing as the temperature increases.

What are ecosystem services? Simply put, ecosystem services are the benefits that people receive from ecosystems like forests, wetlands, and grasslands. They include “provisioning services” such as food, water and timber; “regulating services” that influence climate, water quality, floods and diseases; “supporting services,” including soil formation, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling; and “cultural services” that provide recreational, spiritual and aesthetic benefits. These benefits are often taken for granted, because they are free and no one person or group truly “owns” them.

How much are ecosystem services worth?

Ecosystem Services Valuation (ESV) has emerged as an ecological-economic approach to identifying and valuing the functions, goods, and services produced by ecosystems that benefit human populations but which are not currently traded, and therefore ascribed value, in markets. When making decisions about protecting and managing wild lands, however, it is important to recognize and consider these values

How are ecosystem services in US public lands affected by climate change?

With the expected rise of 2° to 4.5°C in temperature in the upcoming decades due to climate change, significant effects on ecosystems, the benefits they provide to society, and thus on their economic value are expected. The Wilderness Society applied Ecosystem Service Valuation to figure out the current contribution of U.S. public lands to ecosystem service value and how that value will differ due to climate change.

Our results show that a 2°C temperature rise will cause an estimated decline in overall ecosystem services by a value of $14.5 billion. With the 4.5°C warming scenario, the cost could rise to $36.1 billion.

Ironically, the ecosystem service that will be most impacted by a change in temperature is Climate Regulation, which is the ability of an ecosystem to maintain the proper temperatures to ensure things like healthy crop production and healthy plant life.

Water regulation, such as natural irrigation, drainage, channel flow regulation, and navigable transport, would also be severely impacted, increasing the threats of floods in some areas, while parching other, more arid areas that will have lost the ability to maintain water supplies.

Food (i.e. hunting, gathering of fish, game, fruits etc.; small scale subsistence farming and aquaculture) will also feel the brunt of climate change. Fisheries, already stressed by threats like oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, would be under increased stress as the ecosystems that support those industries become less and less productive.

The findings also show that designated wilderness areas, relative to their size, are at greater risk. This is due to the fact that they sustain healthier, more productive ecosystems at the outset and so have more to lose in the onslaught of climate change.

With billions of dollars to lose in ecosystem service values, protecting our natural resources from a changing climate is critical. Placing a cap on the carbon pollution that is going into the air is a vital first step. However, some effects of climate change will be unavoidable, and we need to also protect ecosystems now, before they are degraded by climate change.

photo: Thermometer. Photo by rcbodden, Flickr.